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SHARED INTEL: Threat actors add a human touch to boost effectiveness of automated attacks

By Byron V. Acohido

Trends in fashion and entertainment come and go. The same holds true for the cyber underground.

Related: Leveraging botnets to scale attacks

For a long while now, criminal hackers have relied on leveraging low-cost botnet services to blast out cyber attacks as far and wide as they could, indiscriminately. Over the past 18 months or so, a fresh trend has come into vogue. It essentially involves applying hands-on human cleverness to the task of extracting highest value from assets gained in the automated sweeps.

British antimalware and network security vendor Sophos refers to this new tactic as “automated, active attacks.” Sophos Senior Security Advisor John Shier broke it down for me. We met at Black Hat 2019. For a full drill down, give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are the key takeaways:

Human touch

It has long been common practice to use botnets to blast out wave after wave of e-mails carrying tainted PDFs or Word docs, or a web link pointing to a booby-trapped page – and seeing who would bite. Lately, progressive criminal rings are taking a page out of the playbook of nation-state sponsored APT strikes — by adding more human nuances to their attacks.

“They may discover their targets through some sort of automated technique, which gets them a toehold into the company, or they might just simply go to Shodan (search engine) to discover open, available RDP hosts,” Shier told me. “Once they’re in the front door, now the humans get involved.”

Related: How ransomware became a scourge

Specialists get assigned to poke around, locate key servers and find stealthy paths to send in more malware. They’ll take more manual steps to encrypt servers, exfiltrate data – or do both.

“Cyber criminals are getting into the environment, elevating privileges as much as they can and moving laterally to other segments of the network,” Shier says. “And then, instead of encrypting one or two or ten machines, they’ll encrypt everything.”

The wave of catastrophic ransomware attacks that wrought tens of millions in recovery costs for the cities of Baltimore and Atlanta and prompted numerous small cities to pay six figure ransoms for decryption keys is a prime example of this, Shier says. …more

Q&A: Here’s why Android users must remain vigilant about malicious apps, more so than ever

By Byron V. Acohido

Android users – and I’m one – are well-advised to be constantly vigilant about the types of cyberthreats directed, at any given time, at the world’s most popular mobile device operating system.

Related: Vanquishing BYOD risks

Attacks won’t relent anytime soon, and awareness will help you avoid becoming a victim. It’s well worth it to stay abreast of news about defensive actions Google is forced to take to protect Android users. Just recently, for instance, the search giant removed 50 malicious apps, installed 30 million times, from the official Google Play Store, including fitness, photo-editing, and gaming apps.

And earlier this year, three popular “selfie beauty apps”– Pro Selfie Beauty Camera, Selfie Beauty Camera Pro and Pretty Beauty Camera 2019 – accessible in Google Play Store were revealed to actually be tools to spread adware and spyware. Each app had at least 500,000 installs, with Pretty Beauty Camera 2019 logging over 1 million installs, mainly by Android users in India.

Instructive details about both of these malicious campaigns come from malware analysts working on apklab.io, which officially launched in February. Apklab.io is Avast’s mobile threat intelligence platform designed to share intelligence gathered by analyzing samples collected from 145 million Android mobile devices in use worldwide.

I had the chance to sit down with Nikolaos Chrysaidos (pictured), head of mobile threat intelligence and security at Avast, to drill down on the wider context of the helpful findings apklabl.io has begun delivering. Here are excerpts of our discussion, edited for clarity and length:

Acohido: What was distinctive about the 50 malicious Android apps your analysts recently discovered?

Chrysaidos: The installations ranged from 5,000 to 5 million installs, and included adware that persistently displayed full screen ads, and in some cases, tried to convince the user to install further apps. The adware applications were linked together by the use of third-party Android libraries, which bypass the background service restrictions present in newer Android versions.

The bypassing itself is not explicitly forbidden on Play Store. However, our analysts were able to detect it because apps using these libraries waste the user’s battery and make the device slower. In this instance, the libraries kept displaying more and more ads, which does violate the Google Play Store rules. …more

Q&A: The drivers behind the stark rise — and security implications — of ‘memory attacks’

By Byron V. Acohido

A distinctive class of hacking is rising to the fore and is being leveraged by threat actors to carry out deep, highly resilient intrusions of well-defended company networks.

Related: Memory hacking becomes a go-to tactic

These attacks are referred to in the security community as “fileless attacks” or “memory attacks.” The latter conveys a more precise picture: memory hacking refers to a broad set of practices, which can include fileless attacks, that constitute this go-deep form of network break-ins.

I had the chance at RSA 2019 to discuss memory hacking with Willy Leichter, vice president of marketing, and Shauntinez Jakab, director of product marketing, at Virsec, a San Jose-based supplier of advanced application security and memory protection technologies.

They walked me through how threat actors are cleverly slipping snippets of malicious code past perimeter defenses and then executing their payloads  – undetected while applications are live, running in process memory.

For a long time, memory hacking was the exclusive province of nation-state backed operatives. But over the past couple of years, memory attacks have come into regular use by common cybercriminals. Garden-variety threat actors are now leveraging memory hacking tools and techniques to gain footholds, move laterally and achieve persistence deep inside well-defended networks.

For a comprehensive drill down, please view the accompanying YouTube video of my full interview with Leichter and Jakab at RSA 2019’s broadcast alley. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity and length:

LW: Can you frame this new class of hacking? …more

Q&A: Researchers find evidence of emerging market for stolen, spoofed machine identities

By Byron V. Acohido

It’s edifying what you can find shopping in the nether reaches of the dark web.

Related: Why government encryption backdoors should never be normalized.

Academic researchers from Georgia State University in the U.S. and the University of Surrey in the U.K. recently teamed up and found evidence of an emerging market for stolen and spoofed machine identities.

Specifically, the researchers found:

•A ready inventory of stolen SSL/TLS certificates, along with a range of related services and products, for sale, priced from $260 to $1,600, depending on the type of certificate offered and the scope of additional services.

•Extended validation certificates, packaged with services to support malicious websites, such as Google-indexed “aged” domains, after-sale support, web design services, and integration with a range of payment processors – including Stripe, PayPal and Square.

•A vendor offering to issue certificates from reputable Certificate Authorities (CAs), along with forged company documentation, as part of a package of services enabling an attacker to credibly present themselves as a trusted U.S. or U.K. company for less than $2,000.

This emerging black market for machine identities is but a mere starting point for cyber criminals who recognize a huge, unguarded exposure when they see one. Thus, threat actors have begun moving with alacrity to capitalize on it, before companies get around to protecting their exposed machine identity.

Repeated missteps

As a famous American sports hero once said, “It’s Déjà vu all over again.” In cobbling together our classic business networks, we did an imperfect job setting up privileged access for human users – and we continue to pay the price.  And yet, we are about to repeat the same missteps with respect to the over-privileging of non-human, or machine, identities.

Machine identities are what make hybrid business networks possible; they are nothing less than the key to stitching together emerging IoT- and 5G-centric systems. Think about the coming generation of smart homes, public venues, utilities and transportation systems. They will require an exploding number of APIs to connect each microservice, to each software container, to each orchestration tool, on up the software stack, to each new mobile app delivering each of our daily digital experiences. …more

Q&A: How AI, digital transformation are shaking up revenue management in high tech, life sciences

By Byron V. Acohido

A recent poll of some 300 senior executives from U.S.-based life sciences and high-tech manufacturing companies sheds light on how digital transformation – and the rising role of third-party partners – have combined to create unprecedented operational challenges in the brave new world of digital commerce.

Related: AI one-upsmanship prevails in antivirus field

Model N’s 2019 State of Revenue Report surveyed CEOs, CMOs and senior sales executives from leading pharmaceutical, medical devices, high-tech manufacturing and semiconductor companies. Model N is a San Mateo, CA-based supplier of revenue management systems.

Some 78 percent of respondents said AI has altered the way they do revenue management,  while 69 percent identified digital transformation as a revenue management game changer. Meanwhile, some 90 percent of respondents reported reliance on 20 or more partners, while 70 percent said they work with 40 or more partners.

Model N’s study provides yet another perspective on the unprecedented complexities organizations must navigate to compete in an internet-centric business environment. The core challenge for just about any company seeking top line and bottom line growth boils down to solving two intricate puzzles: how to deploy advanced digital systems in just the right measure; and how to collaborate, effectively and securely, with third-party partners.

And, of course, this must be done while defending the company’s digital assets against rising cyber attacks, launched by skilled, determined threat actors.

With that in mind, Last Watchdog sat down with Model N CEO Jason Blessing to drill down on a few instructive findings from Model N’s poll — and connect the dots to some wider. Here are excerpts edited for clarity and length.

LW: How has the revenue generation landscape shifted over the past few years? …more

Q&A: How cutting out buzzwords could actually ease implementation of powerful security tools

By Byron V. Acohido

The central dilemma posed by digital transformation is this: How do companies reap the benefits of high-velocity software development without creating onerous security exposures?

Related: Golden Age of cyber spying dawns

The best practices standards and protocols to pull off this delicate balancing act have been thoroughly vetted and are readily available. And there’s certainly no shortage of sophisticated technology solutions.

So what’s missing? Why have organizations, of all sizes and in all sectors, failed to make more progress shrinking a security gap that appears, in fact, to be inexorably widening?

These were questions I discussed at RSA 2019 with Samantha Madrid, a veteran executive in the enterprise security space, who recently joined Juniper Networks as vice president, security & business strategy. Juniper has been in the vanguard of integrating security deeper into the plumbing of modern business networks.

Madrid observed that the white noise of overlapping marketing messages has not made it any easier for enterprises to chart a truer course for securing their networks. One of the first things Madrid told me she did when she arrived at Juniper was to ask her colleagues to stop using marketing buzzwords.

“A vendor should be able to explain, in simple terms, how they can help solve a customer’s problem,” she said.

Having covered tech security since 2004, I can attest that there is plenty of room for more clarity, and less hype, in security products marketing. To hear my conversation with Madrid in its entirety, please give a listen to the accompanying podcast. Here are excerpts edited for clarity and length.

LW:  Can you frame the security challenges companies are facing in today’s very dynamic environment? …more

Q&A: How cybersecurity has become a primal battleground for AI one-upsmanship

By Byron V. Acohido

A discussion of how – and why – adversaries are using artificial intelligence to juice up malicious activities
When antivirus (AV) software first arrived in the late 1980s, the science of combating computer viruses was very straightforward.

AV kept close track of known malicious files, and then quarantined or deleted any known malware that had managed to embed itself on the protected computing device. At its core, AV still does that today.

Threat actors, of course, responded by engaging AV vendors in what has turned out to be a decades-long contest of one-upmanship. They quickened their pace of creating sprawling families of malware, putting AV vendors in an endless chase to identify, and blacklist, new malware variants as quickly as possible.

What began as a game of checkers, quickly advanced to chess and then to 3D chess. That brings us to today, where AV vendors and malware distributors are engaged in a 3D chess match — infused by artificial intelligence, or AI.

I recently visited with Rajarshi Gupta, head of AI at Avast, who gave me a breakdown of how threat actors, today, are leveraging AI to support their malicious activities. Here are excerpts of our discussion, edited for clarity and length.

LW: Can you frame how AI has come into play dealing with adversaries?

Gupta: We’ve really pushed the frontiers of AI in the last decade in things like video, scene-understanding, natural language processing and even driverless cars. But, if you think about it, security is the only domain where we have to deal with a true adversary. It’s the only domain where someone who is very smart, and who has every economic incentive, can use the best tools available, including AI. To combat this, we need to utilize the best tools, and use them better than the dark side. That’s why we’re seeing the security industry continuously adopt more and more AI techniques to do battle with the black hats.

LW: And, conversely, AI is being increasingly leveraged by the attackers?

Gupta: Yes. There’s really nothing new in the basic cat and mouse chase that’s been taking place for 30 years. It’s just that both sides are now using AI to improve their respective games.

LW: Can you walk me through an illustration? …more